Thorstein Veblen


  • 1857-1929
  • First generation son of unassimilated Norwegian immigrants
  • Grew up in Wisconson
  • Educated Carleton, Johns Hopkins, Yale, and Cornell
  • Taught at Chicago, Stanford, U. Missouri, and New School
  • Primary work 1899: The Theory of the Leisure Class
  • Like Weber, Pareto, and Marx caught between economics and sociology. Perhaps more a social critic than a social theorist.

Thorstein Veblen on "Conspicuous Consumption"

Quotes and Concepts

“conspicuous consumption”
“conspicuous waste”
Theory of the Leisure Class

At issue: the ceremonial (vs. utilitarian) differentiation in consumption patterns.

Traditional role: two classes – superior one that consumes and is honorable and inferior one that produces and is more base. » men as consumers / women as producers »unproductive consumption »prestige & honor »taboos against base class consumption of honor goods »distinction between luxury for the honored classes and subsistence for the lower classes.


Largely gendered in its development according to Veblen.

Interesting points about intoxication and related behaviors being considered manly and honorable.

Note the connection here between consumption patterns, meaning, and social structure.

Consumption of luxury as perquisite of being master. By others it is at the sufferance of the master (thus, hospitality). In patriarchal society, women’s consumption is only for the benefit or pleasure of their “masters” (325.5).

“As wealth accumulates on his hands, his own unaided effort will not avail to sufficiently put his opulence in evidence by this method. The aid of his friends and competitors is there brought in by resorting to the giving of presents and expensive feasts” (327.3).

“As wealth accumulates,… [t]here is a more or less elaborate system of rank and grades. … inheritance of wealth and … inheritance of gentility … obligatory leisure … [g]entle blood may be transmitted without goods enough to afford a reputably free consumption at one’s ease” (328.8-329.1).

Hangers on – courtiers, retainers, servants. “affiliated gentlemen of leisure are at the same time lesser men of substance in their own right. Vicarious consumers.

vicarious [L vicarius, fr. vicis change, alteration, stead – more at WEEK] (1637) 1 a : a serving instead of someone or something else b: that which has been delegated 2 : performed or suffered by one person as a substitute for another or to the benefit or advantage of another 3 : experienced or realized through imaginative or sympathetic participation in the experience of another.

Folk etymology suggests that this word comes from “vicar” in the spirit of the vicar getting vicarious pleasure from what he knows about his parishioners activities though he cannot participate in them. In fact, the word vicar comes from the same Latin root vicarius because a vicar is a substitute or agent (in Episcopal churches the person in charge of a mission or chapel who receives a stipend but not the tithes of the parish).

Possibly related to the word week which was ME weke fr. OE wicu, wucu; akin to OHG wehha week and perh. to L vicus change, alteration, OHG wehsal exchange (cf. G wechsel = change)

Interesting Durkheimian observation (sacred as contagious) : “a base service performed for a person of very high degree may become a very honorific service” (DJR: one might think about the servants in the film “Gosford Park” who are ranked based somewhat one the rank of whom they serve.

Note Veblen’s evolutionary story. Wealthy guy » staff » they wear uniform, etc. showing whom they work for » “livery becomes the exclusive badge of the menial” (330.3)

As we move down class scale we see fewer folks attached to head of household. In middle class male HoH even as to spend most time working in industry. Still, leisure by wife is taken as sign that husband is pulling in enough. (Cf. objections to wives working – that was something that lower classes did).

DJR: Cf. these days women and men who work so that they can pay for household help and child care that permit them to go to work.

All this analysis concerns the “great economic law of wasted effort.” That which is “reputable and presentable” is always items of conspicuous consumption and apparatus for putting in evidence the vicarious leisure rendered by the housewife. “wasted effort,” “ceremonial cleanliness,” “…the wife, who was at the outset the drudge and chattel of the man, both in fact and in theory, the producer of goods for him to consume, has become the ceremonial consumer of goods which he produces” (332.6).

“…The result is that the members of each stratum accept as their ideal of decency the shcem of life in vogue at the next higher stratum, and bend their energies to live up tot hat ideal” (333.2).
Fieldwork. Look at living rooms. What sort of things do people display there? Coffee table books (I can afford unreadable books), vacation items (I get away), art objects (I can afford them), fancy music equipment/collections (I have time to become a music afficianado), etc.

Questions for Readers

1. What does Veblen mean when he talks about servant classes as having the occupation of “vicarious leisure” (322.3)?
2. Suppose you were going to write a paper called “Veblen as feminist” – what ideas and observations would be on your list of examples?
3. What is “conspicuous consumption”?
4. Final exam question: granted that we have read no women authors in this course, let’s search for possibly unappreciated proto-feminist arguments/points/observations in the authors we have read.

Vocabulary (just for fun)

amelioration (326.3)
deprecation (325)
invidious purpose
punctilious discrimination (326.5)
a connoisseur in creditable viands of various degrees (326.6)

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